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Living in Japan
What You Should Know About Living Costs and More in Japan
There are many useful facts about Japan that expats should be aware before moving to the island nation. For example, although a crowded country of nearly 127 million people, it is customary to line up before boarding a train. Foreigners may also be surprised to see thousands of cars in big cities like Tokyo and Kyoto, yet you will hear little to no honking.
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There are many practicalities to be aware of when moving to Japan. Japan is a welcoming society for foreigners and does not expect them to adhere to custom in Japanese society, but some knowledge of the cultural expectations will go a long way to making the country your home.
One of the first things to know is that the cost of living is high in Japan. As an island nation, many goods have to be imported into Japan, which drives up prices. However, even without imports, Japan has a long history of being costly. This is because Japanese society believes in delivering high quality whether it be in goods or hospitality. With high quality typically comes high prices.
Whether it is how to set up your communications in order to keep in touch with loved ones from abroad or tips on driving and public transportation, you can use this guide to walk you through everything you need to know to feel at home in Japan.
|Emergency: fire or ambulance||119|
Much of Japan’s societal beliefs are reflected in their public holidays. Expats will take particular notice of holidays that honor one’s age and holidays that honor Japan’s natural environment: the sea, mountains, and forests.
New Year’s Day—January 1st
New Year’s Day celebrates the first day of the calendar New Year.
Coming-of-Age Day—Second Monday of January
The second Monday of January celebrates those in Japan who will turn 20 years old that year. 20 is the age people in Japan are legally allowed to vote and drink. Local governments throw seijin shiki (adult ceremony) to celebrate the new adults.
National Foundation Day—February 11
National Foundation Day celebrates the mythological founding of Japan in 660 BC and the ascension of the first emperor: Emperor Jimmu.
The Emperor’s Birthday
This holiday is celebrated on the birthday of the current reigning emperor. The current emperor of Japan is Emperor Naruhito, whose birthday is February 23.
Vernal Equinox Day
Vernal Equinox Day occurs on the date of the Northward equinox, which is usually March 20 or 21.
Shōwa Day—April 29 (Golden Week)
This holiday marks the start of Golden Week in Japan, which is a week of about six separate holidays in Japan. Shōwa Day celebrates the birthday of Emperor Shōwa, who ruled Japan from 1926 to 1989.
Constitutional Memorial Day—May 3 (Golden Week)
As its name suggests, Constitutional Memorial Day celebrates the formula proclamation on Japan’s constitution in 1947.
Greenery Day—May 4 (Golden Week)
Greenery Day is associated with Emperor Shōwa’s birthday. It is a nationally recognized holiday to give appreciation to nature.
Children’s Day—May 5 (Golden Week)
This holiday marks the official end of Golden Week. It is celebrated to honor the children of Japan.
Marine Day—Third Monday in July
Marine Day is a national celebration to honor the sea.
Mountain Day—August 11
Mountain Day is Japan’s newest national holiday established to honor the mountains.
Respect for the Aged Day—Third Monday of September
This holiday celebrates the elderly population of Japan. Japanese nationals typically celebrate by returning to their homes, where their grandparents and/or parents still live.
Autumnal Equinox Day—September 22 or 23
This holiday celebrates the Southward equinox.
Health and Sports Day—Second Monday of October
Health and Sports Day commemorates the 1964 Tokyo Summer Olympics. Activities and events promote an active, healthy lifestyle.
Culture Day celebrates Japan’s culture, arts, and academic achievements.
Labor Thanksgiving Day—November 23
This holiday celebrates Japan’s labor force and promotes giving thanks to one another.
The main embassies of Japan can be found in Tokyo or Osaka, with a few also found in Sapporo, Nagoya, Hiroshima, and Fukuoka. For a complete list of embassies in Japan, you can consult Japan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs’ website.
Japan’s primary airport is Narita Airport, which services Tokyo. After that, the next major airport is Kansai Airport in Osaka. Other airports include Haneda Airport in Tokyo, Central Japan Airport in Nagoya, and Fukuoka Airport in Fukuoka.
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Cost of Living
The average cost of living in Japan is consistently ranked as one of the highest in the world. As a national average, the monthly costs of daily life range around 280,000–300,000 JPY (2,500–2,700 USD). Why is it so expensive to live in Japan? This is partially due to Tokyo’s exorbitant prices. Tokyo consistently ranks as one of the most expensive cities in the world, and as the most populous city in Japan it is only natural that the country’s average cost of living would be influenced by the metropolis.
The country’s steep prices can also be attributed to its geography. As an island nation that is 124 miles from mainland Asia, it is heavily reliant on imports. Expats may be surprised to find certain items more expensive or cheaper than what is found in other countries. For example, nearly all dairy products have to be imported into Japan. As dairy is also not a large part of the Japanese diet, these items can be two or three times more expensive than what is found in Europe or North America. Likewise, popular Japanese brand cars like Toyota, Nissan, Honda, Mazda, Suzuki, and Subaru are inexpensive. A new one will cost about one million JPY (9,000 USD) compared with a starting price of about 18,000 USD (2 million JPY) in North America.
Living Expenses in Japan
Expats worried about the high living expenses in Japan should keep in mind that with this high cost comes a high quality of life. Japan has an extremely stable economy and is known for ultra-modern, innovative conveniences. After all, this is the country that grows melons in square containers, forcing the fruit into a boxy, easily stackable shape.
Cost of Living in Japan by City
Here is a look at the cost of living in some of Japan’s most popular cities with expats. Tokyo, Yokohama, and Osaka are three of the most expensive cities, while Kyoto and Fukuoka are two of the most affordable. Prices include average monthly expenses and rent.
|Single expat||244,600 JPY||2,200 USD|
|Family of four||730,000 JPY||6,700 USD|
|Single expat||204,000 JPY||1,900 USD|
|Family of four||700,000 JPY||6,400 USD|
|Single expat||181,000 JPY||2,100 USD|
|Family of four||530,000 JPY||6,300 USD|
|Single expat||167,500 JPY||1,500 USD|
|Family of four||450,000 JPY||4,100 USD|
|Single expat||145,000 JPY||1,300 USD|
|Family of four||367,000 JPY||3,400 USD|
Grocery Prices in Japan
As stated earlier, prices throughout the Land of the Rising Sun tend to be high because a lot of goods are imported. Food and alcohol prices in Japan will be higher than what is found throughout other Asian countries. Expats that enjoy eating out can opt for cheap ramen and noodle shops, which will run about 500–1,000 JPY (5–10 USD), or treat themselves to an average restaurant cost of about 3,000 JPY (30 USD) per person.
Sample Grocery Prices in Japan
|One dozen eggs||280||2.60|
|One quart of milk||200||1.90|
|One pound of chicken||470||4.40|
|One pound of apples||730||6.80|
|16 ounces of beer||260||2.40|
|One bottle of wine||1,700||15.70|
Utilities are typically not included in Japanese rent. Prices will vary depending on where you live in Japan, but on average expats should expect to spend around 20,000 JPY (190 USD) per month on electricity, gas, and water. Internet will be about 3,000 to 9,000 JPY per month depending on speed (30–85 USD).
Cost of Education
Education costs in Japan are only high if you choose to send your children to a private or international school. Public schools are free for both Japanese and foreign students. The only costs you will need to pay are for school uniforms and other materials. This will average around 4,000 JPY (35 USD) per year. Private and international school tuitions, however, will cost anywhere from 2,000,000 JPY to 2.3 million JPY (18,000 to 21,000 USD) per year.
Here is a look at rent prices in Japan based upon the most expensive and most affordable cities.
|One-bedroom apartment||290,000 JPY||2,700 USD|
|Three-bedroom apartment||124,600 JPY||1,100 USD|
|One-bedroom apartment||104,000 JPY||1,000 USD|
|Three-bedroom apartment||300,000 JPY||2,800 USD|
|One-bedroom apartment||74,000 JPY||700 USD|
|Three-bedroom apartment||140,000 JPY||1,300 USD|
|One-bedroom apartment||67,500 JPY||620 USD|
|Three-bedroom apartment||150,000 JPY||1,400 USD|
|One-bedroom apartment||60,000 JPY||550 USD|
|Three-bedroom apartment||137,000 JPY||1,300 USD|
Japan is well-known for its excellent healthcare. The majority of residents use the public healthcare system, which covers 70% of medical costs. Some expats may opt for private health insurance to supplement the 30% or if they expect to need extensive medical care during their time in Japan.
On average, with health insurance you can expect to pay anywhere between 5,000–10,000 JPY (45–90 USD) for a consultation at a clinic, and 10,000–15,000 JPY (90–140 USD) at a hospital. Without insurance, these costs will go up to 20–50,000 JPY (180–460 USD). Follow up appointments should cost less.
Travel and Transportation Cost
Transportation throughout Japan is fast, efficient, and reasonably priced. Costs range from 170 JPY (1.50 USD) for a single fare ticket in Tokyo’s metro to 20,000 JPY (185 USD) for a one-way ticket on the famous bullet train. Buses and trains are the most common way to travel throughout the country, although it is also possible to take domestic flights and ferries.
Culture and Social Etiquette
As an expat, understanding the cultural and social etiquette of your new home is important to not committing a grievous faux pas. In a country, as steeped in customs and traditions as Japan, this is especially important.
Japanese society is renowned for its politeness and reserved quality. Culturally, it is frowned upon to draw too much attention to yourself in Japan and it is especially taboo to draw attention to others. Even when having a disagreement at work, it is more acceptable to stop talking and let the moment pass rather than continue to fight.
Worried about fitting in in Japan? InterNations GO! provides cultural training with local experts who will help you learn all you need to know to adapt to Japanese society. We can set you up with individual training or group courses for your whole family.
When most people think of greetings in Japan, they think of bowing. In Japanese society, it is common to see people bow when greeting one another. This is done by bending at the waist, keeping your back and neck straight with your arms either at your side or fingertips touching and at thigh-level.
As a foreigner, you are not expected to bow when greeting people. Instead, you can simply nod your head. Do not try to shake hands unless the other person initiates.
Hierarchy in Japan is very important. There is great respect for elders, as is indicated by a holiday specifically celebrating the elderly. Observance of hierarchy is most important in Japanese work culture, but you should be aware of it in everyday interactions as well. This means, when interacting with someone older than you, it is important to be polite. For example, holding doors open and allowing someone older than you to walk through first.
Eating and Drinking
There are many manners and customs that must be observed in regard to eating in Japan. For example, if eating with a group of people and sharing dishes, you must not eat from the communal plate. Instead, place food onto your own, individual plate and eat from there. Likewise, you should never pour your own drink. You should pour a drink for others and leave yours empty. Someone will then pour a drink for you.
Contrary to other cultures, in Japan, it is seen as polite to slurp noodle dishes. The louder you slurp, the more of a compliment it is considered to the chef. Conversely, while it may seem like no big deal to eat while walking in other countries, in Japan, it is considered rude. If you need to eat on the go you should go to one of Japan’s many convenience stores and eat at the countertops provided.
While living in Japan, you are bound to use chopsticks from time to time. Therefore, it is important to be aware of the rules that go along with the utensils.
For starters, chopsticks are exactly that: a utensil. Do not use them as a toy by playing with them at the dinner table, nor should you use them to point. If eating with a group of people and deciding what to eat, do not hover them in the air. Instead, lay them on the hashioki, the small chopstick rest. If there is no hashioki, create one out of the paper that the chopsticks came in. Never leave chopsticks sticking straight into a bowl of rice as this is a symbol for funerals and death.
When holding chopsticks, you should not rub them together. Non-Japanese people typically do this with wooden chopsticks to rid them of splinters and residue, but it is seen as very rude in Japan. You should also hold them near the top, keeping your hand away from accidentally touching the food.
In Japan, and in a few other Asian countries, it is seen as rude and aggressive to point with one finger. If you are giving directions or gesturing to something, you should instead use your whole hand with your fingers held straight.
Feet and Shoes
A well-known custom from Japan is taking off your shoes before entering someone’s home. While this holds true, it is also customary to take off your shoes at some businesses. Pay attention to signs outside shops or whether you see groups of shoes lined up in front of a business. It is common for businesses to provide indoor slippers.
Driving in Japan
With its well-maintained roads and gorgeous scenery, driving in Japan is a great option for any expat hoping to see more of the country. Luckily, getting a driver’s license is easy although, depending on the country that you come from, it may take some time and paperwork.
How to Get a Japanese Driving License
If you are a national from a country with which Japan has an agreement, you need only to bring your license and a certified translation to a Japanese Driving Center. You can get an official translation of your license through the Japan Automobile Federation (JAF). At the driving center, you will have a short interview and be issued a Japanese driving license. Countries with the agreement in place include the following:
- Czech Republic
- New Zealand
- South Korea
Nationals from all other countries will need to take a written and practical driving exam.
Required Documents for a Japanese Driver’s License
Whether or not you are exempt from taking a Japanese driving exam, everyone applying for a Japanese driving license will need to submit the following documents:
- your valid driving license;
- official translation of your license;
If you do not have a driving license from your previous country, you will need to take all the necessary steps to apply for a brand-new license just like a Japanese national. If you do have a driving license, you will need to prove that you have had it for longer than 90 days.
The average cost of a Japanese license is about 5,000 JPY (50 USD).
Driving in Japan with a UK/US/European License
Most expats intending to live in Japan will either need a Japanese driving license or an International Driving License. If you have an International Driving License, you can only drive on it for one year upon your arrival in Japan. After a year is up, you will need to switch to a Japanese driving license.
Driving Rules in Japan
Driving rules in Japan are similar to what is found in most highly developed countries. However, there are a few things to be aware of in order to maintain road safety.
- Cars drive on the left side of the road. Drivers also sit on the left side of the car.
- The typical speed limits are 80 to 100 km/h on expressways, 40 km/h in urban areas, 30 km/h in side streets, and 50 to 60 km/h elsewhere.
- Drivers generally tend to be well mannered and considerate. It is frowned upon to drive aggressively and honking is rare.
- The minimum age for driving in Japan is 18.
- Signs on major roads are in Japanese and English.
- Vehicles must come to a full stop before crossing train tracks.
Renting a Car in Japan
You may rent a car in Japan with a foreign driving license, but you will need a Japanese translation of the license. You must also be at least 18 years old in order to rent or drive a rental car. Rental prices will vary depending on the type of car, but prices generally average around 10,000 JPY (100 USD) per day.
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Public Transportation in Japan
When most people think about how public transportation is in Japan, they typically think of fast and efficient. This is largely due to Japan’s famous bullet train (Shinkansen) and news stories of the Japanese government issuing formal apologies when trains do not run exactly on time. No matter whether you are in one of Japan’s major cities or in a rural area, public transportation in Japan is easy and convenient to use.
When using public transportation in Japan, it is important to be aware of certain etiquettes. For example, people in Japan line up to board a train. You will see lines and arrows on the ground indicating where the line should form. It is important not to cut or push anyone in line. Likewise, if you are issued a ticket with a seat number, it is important that you sit in your assigned space.
Types of Public Transportation in Japan
Japan has every type of public transportation system imaginable. From trains to buses and ferries, those who prefer not to drive in Japan will still be able to get around the country easily. In Japan’s big cities, you will find trains and buses are equally popular modes of transportation. Pink colored train cars are for women and young children only.
Cost of Public Transport in Japan
The cost of public transport in Japan is fairly reasonable, especially when compared to the cost of everything else in the country. The cost will vary depending on the type of transportation you use and how far you want to go.
|Type of Transport||JPY||USD|
|Bullet train one-way ticket||20,000||185|
|Tokyo metro single fare (train and bus)||170–310||1.50–2.80|
|Kyoto metro single fare (train and bus)||210–350||1.90–3.20|
|Tokyo one-day pass (train and bus)||600||5.50|
|Kyoto one-day pass (train and bus)||900||8.30|
|Taxi standard fare||500–1,000||4.60–10|
Japan Rail Pass
If you plan to travel throughout Japan extensively when you first arrive, it may be worth looking into the Japan Rail Pass (sometimes called the JR Pass). This is a discounted pass that provides unlimited train travel for 7, 14, and 21-day periods throughout the country. However, the pass is largely meant for tourists and can only be purchased from abroad. Prices range from 25,000–70,000 JPY (230–650 USD) depending on the length of time you book the pass for and whether you want a standard or first class (called the green card) ticket.
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